The Boxes We Grow Up In: identity, development and the prefrontal cortex

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Ask anyone–I was a hot mess in my teens and early twenties. Disorganized, unfocused, and completely unable to finish anything I started. I dropped out of high school because I found the graduation requirements overwhelming, and by the time I finally graduated college at age 30 (remember the age, it’s important) I had credits from five different institutions on my transcript. And a story about myself that I was flaky, undisciplined, and unreliable.

None of that is actually true about me. It’s just that my brain hadn’t grown up yet.

But I carried that identity with me for years, even as much of I was doing was actually the opposite. I finished college with straight As, was a successful sales manager for a large region, managed the publishing division of a national non-profit, co-founded a non-profit, and more.

And yet I carried a story about myself based on who I was as a teen and young adult, which I was blind to (as we often are to the stories we have about ourselves). It was my dear friend and business partner who finally called me on it a couple of years ago when I said something along the lines of “Well, you know me, I have no discipline,” and after she got finished snorting coffee out her nose and laughing hysterically, she said, “Oh stop it! That is ridiculous. You are the most  disciplined person I know.”

I was completely taken aback, but when I looked more objectively at my life, I saw she had a point. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I went from a haphazard fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants adolescent to a focused, capable, organized adult.

Now you could chalk this up to the general process of learning, and you could assume it was just me developing skills and getting feedback and becoming more effective. And part of that is true. But there is something deeper here: the truth is, I have focus, discipline and organization in my nature. It is actually core to who I am, not just a learned adaptation. So why was I such a mess as a young adult? What happened?

I grew up.

These days we’ve all heard that the brain doesn’t fully develop until approximately the mid-twenties. What we’re referring to is the prefrontal cortex, the last part of  the brain to come fully “on line.” Known as the seat of executive function, this part of the brain is in charge of calibrating risk and reward, problem-solving, prioritizing, thinking ahead, long-term planning, emotional regulation, and the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes. (It’s not that these things aren’t possible before maturity, it’s just that it takes a lot more effort and isn’t very reliable.)

And so, for over 25 years I was telling a very old story, based on an immature version of myself, which I had taken on as true, despite a great deal of evidence to the contrary. Evidence I couldn’t see because the story was blinding me to the truth.

So now, I have a new story, that I am disciplined and focused. And the power of being conscious to this is huge. Probably the main thing is that I am able to trust myself more. When I am about to take something on, instead of hearing an internal voice say “Well I don’t know, you know you don’t tend to follow through very well,” I hear “Good for you, you’ll get that done easily.” The old story was like fighting an uphill battle. The new one is more like riding a wave. And I much prefer riding a wave!

I wonder how many of us have taken on a very old and inaccurate story about ourselves, based on who we were as an adolescent or young adult work-in-progress? And how often do we label kids and teens as “this way” or “that way,” when honestly, we don’t know who they will actually turn out to be once their brains are fully developed?

Take a look and see if what you have been saying about yourself is true, or if it simply was true, before your brain grew up and you became who you actually are.

 

 

Making Affirmations Work

affirmationI recently received an inquiry about affirmations from a dear friend, wondering about a client who was convinced they just didn’t work for him. My friend, an accomplished and seasoned coach, asked me for some hard data that it actually works to tell say positive statements to ourselves. Does it, he asked, really re-wire the brain?

At BEabove Leadership, we’ve thought a lot about this issue. Affirmations are some of the stock in trade of us coaches, and so understanding whether or not they work from a scientific perspective is important. Here’s our thinking on the matter:

1) Affirmations are a way of activating neuroplasticity and the multi-modal nature of neural pathways. That is, many of our neurons fire when they are doing something, watching someone else do something, or imagining doing something (affirmations fall into this category).

2) As you know, we process on both a conscious level and a sub-conscious level. Affirmations are trying to make the subconscious believe the conscious. In other words, consciously working to rewire our subconscious.

3) When we say something to ourselves that we don’t actually believe on a subconscious level, such as, in the famous words of Stuart Smalley of Saturday Night Live fame, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it people like me,” the subconscious says “Nope. Don’t buy it, don’t believe it. I’m not and they don’t. I REJECT this thought.” This is true to the degree that some studies have found people with low self-esteem even feel worse after saying affirmations like this. It is disruptive to their internal belief system that has developed to keep them safe.

4) However, if we say it long enough and consistently enough, we may eventually begin to believe it, causing our subconscious to say “Ok, I get it, you’ve convinced me.” But this is a long slog and many people give up along the way. It can take a long, long time for affirmations to work, particularly with very deep-seated issues and core beliefs.

5) Therefore, using the following process is much more brain-friendly, and, we have found, consequently much more effective. (Note: this process comes from an energy healer named Sandy Radomski of Ask and Receive. Neuroscience analysis of the process is ours.) Say out loud the following statements (and repeat as much as you like):

There is a part of my being that already knows how to (fill in the blank) 

This part of my being is informing the rest of me now

It is doing so with grace and ease

My mind body and spirit are receiving this information

Information transfer now complete

Here is why we think it works so well:

We say: There is a PART of my being that already knows how to (fill in the blank). And our subconscious says, “Ok, I’ll give you that. It might be a very very small part, but ok, maybe there is a part of me that knows how to do this.”

This part of my being is informing the rest of me now. Subconscious says “Ok, good idea.”

It is doing so with grace and ease. Subconscious says “Great, I’m not interested in this being a struggle.”

My mind body and spirit are receiving the information. Subconscious says “Cool, I’m not sure which part of me is going to figure this out, so let’s call on all of it.”

Information transfer now complete. Subconscious says “Oh, cool, the Star Trek part.” (Seriously, I don’t know why this is in there, but it always make me giggle).

This way we reprogram the brain without resistance. You can even feel the ease of this as you say it. I use it in the middle of the night when I can’t get to sleep and can feel myself calming down (and there is some evidence to support that any sort of positive self-affirming statement can help reduce stress). And I have used it with numerous clients over the years, who all report that it has helped them move past things that felt stuck.

For an interesting review by Psychology Today, see this link: Do Self-Affirmations Work? 

Why Am I Taking Your Money?

I am going to out myself here. But first, a little context. I’ve been a coach for 14 years. I teach coaching. I teach advanced coaching. I write about coaching. I analyze the neuroscience of coaching. I can demo any coaching process or skill in front of a writing-a-check-1-1239268-1599x1196room with practically anyone and have it work. Usually masterfully. And I still have the occasional client where, to be honest, no matter what I do, they just need someone to listen to them, and it doesn’t really feel like coaching.

I have turned myself inside out over this. I have berated myself, gotten coaching and advice from my peers and mentors, tried everything short of tap dancing with a trained elephant, and still, it comes back to, they just need someone to listen to them.

And so I do that. I end up mostly just listening. And as I talk with experienced coaches from around the world, I find that many of my colleagues often confess to the same. There are some clients who need, more than anything, a non-judgmental ear and place to verbally process.

Often these are clients who, for whatever reason, have nowhere in their lives where they can say everything they are thinking or feeling without filters. It may be because they are in the public eye, at a high position in a company, or simply because they aren’t surrounded by any curious and open people. Or they are intensely verbal processors who have to speak–a lot–in order to know what they think and how they feel.

For the brain, just the process of speaking to an open ear is highly valuable. In the book Supercoach, Michael Neill gives thelamppost-1375555-1279x1661 example of being coached by a lamp post. Imagine, he advises, that someone heads home from work every evening and stops to talk to a lamp post on his way, unburdening himself from the day’s issues and problems, and speaking out loud possibilities and options for tomorrow. The lamp post doesn’t talk back, give advice, or do anything. It’s just there. And the person, by developing the habit of talking to the lamp post, begins to find his life improving. He feels less burdened and a bit more in touch with what is possible. The process of speaking his ideas out loud even triggers new thoughts and insights.

Now add to that the fact that we as coaches, even at the most basic level, do so much more than the average lamp post. We listen with both our hearts and our minds. attuning to what they are saying (in a sense, feeling it with them), and responding thoughtfully and non-judgmentally. This sort of listening tends to elicit what neuroscientists refer to as a “towards” state in the brain, where it is open and receptive. This is in sharp contrast to an “away” state, where your brain basically says, let’s get the heck out of here. We can easily activate an away state in others by being critical, giving unsolicited advice (especially in a judgmental and/or superior manner), or being actively distracted while another is speaking.

When the brain is in a “towards” state, it is more receptive and creative, learning and remembering much more. Insight can happen, where disparate neural networks find each other and connect, causing “aha” moments. The person is emotionally open and actually sees more of what is going on–literally–because the visual processing centers are activated.

And again, even with those clients who just need to be listened to, the truth of the matter is we are usually actually doing much more. It may not feel like coaching at its best, but we are probably also at least:

  • Asking powerful questions designed to have them reflect more deeply;
  • Helping them focus and organize their thoughts;
  • Underlining and highlighting key things that they are saying so that the client is more aware;
  • Bringing it to a “so what” so that they have a new way of moving forward;

So let’s all give ourselves a bit of a break when this happens, and stop the little voice that says “why am I taking your money?” It happens. Sometimes because the coach needs more skill, and sometimes because maybe, just maybe, this is what the client needs.

Although I do need to add, as I often tell my coaching students, that of course these are not the clients I would want to submit for my ICF credential assessment. It’s not best practice in coaching, it’s not the full potential of what coaching can be and do, it’s not what we are capable of as coaches. But sometimes, it’s what happens, and it’s ok.

Your Brain is Basically a Three-Year-Old (and what to do about it)

During a recent workshop in Atlanta, one of the participants came from out of town with her mom and young son. Grandma and grandson hung out in the hotel during the day, and the little boy delighted us all when he stopped by for mom time on the breaks. At one point I happened to have a battery-operated timer in my hand when he came in the room, and being a well-adjusted, curious-1309170open and extremely curious little guy, he of course wanted it, so I gave it to him to play with. Ah, the buttons and bells! He was enchanted and (you probably saw this coming), not at all interested in giving it back at the end of the break. Having had some experience in the mom arena myself, I knew better than to wrest it away by force. The last thing I wanted to do was make him cry! So I dug around in my purse for something else I didn’t need, which turned out to be a bright orange (clean) handkerchief. He was a bit dubious, but took this in exchange for his toy, tears were thus avoided, and the workshop went on.

I tell this story because it reminds me of something I often say to my clients: in some ways, your brain is basically a three-year-old. (Now just to be clear, I’m not saying that you are a three-year-old. You are a marvelous creature of insight and possibilities. It’s just that your brain, well, your brain can be difficult.) Here are a couple of ways in which our brains exhibit three-year-old behavior, and what you might want to do about it:

1) Telling your brain NO often creates resistance, especially if it is currently doing something where there is a reward. Just like a toddler who is experimenting with the boundaries of her own needs and desires, our brains want what they want when they want it. We’re highly primed and encoded to move towards pleasure and away from pain. Dopamine, one of the happy chemicals in our brain (it also has many other functions), helps motivate us to do what is rewarding. And the sharpness of pain helps to keep us safe. Interestingly, perhaps because social connections have been evolutionarily critical to survival, the pain of social rejection (being severely criticized, having one’s heart broken, feeling like an outsider) are processed in a part of the brain adjacent to the pain centers. Not being part of things can literally hurt (and astonishingly, pain relievers can even help).

What to do about it: As every good parent knows, it is most effective to reward good behavior whenever possible and keep punishments to a minimum. The same is true with your brain. I occasionally have clients ask me to “be really tough on them,” and my response is (usually) that they are probably doing just fine in that arena themselves. I’m not interested in yelling at my clients or making them feel bad (I don’t get paid enough and that sort of work probably requires a completely different wardrobe). Instead, I’m more interested in helping them find something to move toward. It’s less of an internal battle to give the brain a compelling alternative and thereby make a new neural pathway (see my many posts on neuroplasticity, including this one for more) than to constantly try to stop doing what we have done a million times before by now inserting punishment or pain.

And negative commands have a way of strengthening the emotional salience of things. Just like when we tell a toddler not to pull the cat’s tail and they immediately do it, saying “don’t” to ourselves reinforces the idea that “Hey, there is something important and perhaps interesting here!” Again, far better to give the child a fluffy toy so that they ignore the cat in favor of something else. And so, instead of “getting tough,” my strategy tends to be to look for the fun way. You hate exercise but want to get in shape? Well, what do you love to do? What would make it not feel like a burden? What would compel you? Imagine being as kind to yourself as you would to an adorable child, and asking, “sweetheart, what do you want to do?”

2) Your brain makes many decisions emotionally and then tries to defend them rationally after the fact. Ever ask a three-year-old “Why did you do that?” Hah! Unless you are just going for the pure entertainment value, this is a losing proposition. Why? Because they don’t know why they did it. They did it because they wanted to. Because it was there. Because, why not? They’ll usually make up something, but the deeper truth is probably more along the lines of “I was experimenting to see if you really meant what you said about not getting out of the bathtub (cutting my doll’s hair, throwing my peas, etc.),” or “You said not to so I thought something interesting might happen if I did it,” or “I don’t know, I just wanted to,” or “It feels good.”

The only difference here between some of our own decisions and those of a three-year-old is that we learn to make our explanations more plausible and rational. Here’s how I understand this — our brains need to conserve energy. The brain makes up about 2-3% of our body weight, but it uses 20-25% of the calories we consume. And as such an energy consumptive part of our body, it is always looking for ways to conserve. Thinking, analyzing, and making decisions all take a lot more energy than emotionally responding, activating existing belief systems, and operating by assumptions. Psychologists call this type 1 processing: automatic, intuitive processes that are not very strenuous. Type 2 thinking, on the other hand, is is slower and involves processing more data and cues from all around us, and activates more of the highest part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.

In addition, all the research points to the fact that we are much better at type 2 thinking when we are well-rested and well-fed (See this fascinating study on the leniency of Israeli judges as one example) and not overly stressed. Add physical needs or emotional stress to the works and your brain just doesn’t have enough juice to operate at its highest level. It’s also the case that some of us just never learned how to move to a higher level of analysis. The brain is like a muscle–if certain parts are not exercised, they won’t be strong. And if someone’s background and training did not include practice in analyzing data and examining many factors when making decisions, all that is available is type 1 processing.

And so, whether we are stressed, hungry, tired, or just never really learned how to think in a more complex way, our type 1 thinking takes over, we respond more automatically, and then, when asked why we did something or think that way, our strong interpretive center takes over and makes something up that sounds good in the moment. Whether it’s rational or not. (For more on this, just watch American politicians for a while — many of them are experts.)

What to do about it: I am actually a huge fan of intuitive knowing, trusting one’s gut, etc. The body has wisdom and our internal sense of what fits and what doesn’t definitely deserves to be cultivated. So I’m not talking about dismissing one’s intuition. Rather, this points to strengthening our muscles of type 2 processing so that we can expand our decision-making capacity. We will always be dual processors, running both our emotional response (type 1) and rational analysis (type 2). If all we have accessible is type one processing, the three-year old in us takes over. And it’s also true that if all we have is type 2, we do not link what is most important and resonant to our choices.

One way to develop type 2 thinking is to take a philosophy (especially logic) or science class. The rigors of this kind of analysis will help to develop your capacity to move your thinking to higher areas of the brain. As coaches, we can also push in this arena to help our clients strengthen their brains by helping them analyze decisions logically, and then linking this consciously to the emotional resonance of their more type 1 thinking (and vice versa).

3) The good news–we can grow too! As I watched the adorable little boy in Atlanta, I noticed something else. He was a scientist, and life was his laboratory. For example, he’d give someone a high five, and then watch intently for their reaction. Like all healthy and well-adjusted toddlers, he was deeply engaged in the process of ongoing learning, pretty much at every moment. Checking things out, seeing what happened, and internally making micro-adjustments. We call this development, and we tend to think of it as the realm of children. But our brains continue to wire and rewire all throughout our whole lives, and when we bring consciousness, intent and support to this process, we can even give ourselves as adults some of what might have been missing in our early years as well as continuing to learn new skills and explore expanded ways of being.

This is one of the most important and significant connections between coaching and neuroscience, the fact that we as coaches help our clients create lasting change by supporting their self-directed neuroplasticity. And yes, children’s brains are more of a blank slate, but ours have unlimited potential as well. In that way, being like a three-year-old a great thing!

Coaching, Stress and the Pre-Frontal Cortex (VIDEO)

Here I am explaining and then demoing how to work with stress and the pre-frontal cortex as part of Boom Boom Go‘s great video library of coaching tools. Click HERE to watch (and HERE to read the article this tool is based on).

Note: this coaching tool is just one of many we teach at BEabove Leadership  in our Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching program!

PFC Curve JPG

The Power of Dreaming, The Power of Action

Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again; and this interdependence produces the highest form of living.

~Anias Nin

Ever wondered why some people seem to lose relationship connection when they are focused on getting things done? Or why some creative dreamers can’t seem to move anything forward? Ever wonder why you get some of your best ideas and “aha” moments in the shower or daydreaming on a walk? Well, guess what? Like many human mysteries, there is a brain explanation.

The Default Network (DMN) and the Task Positive Network (TPN) are two distinct neural networks in the brain. The DMN is a network of brain regions that are active when the individual is not focused on the outside world and the brain is Black Horseat wakeful rest. It’s called “default” because it is the network that is activated unless we are specifically engaged in goal-directed activity and external input, the realm of the TPN. Probably one of the most interesting aspects of these two networks is that when Default is active, Task is not. And when Task is active, Default is not. Part of each network’s function is to shut the other down.

I like to think of the two networks this way: imagine your brain is a horse. Task Mode is when you put blinders on your horse, hitch it up to a cart, and drive it forward. It just pays attention to what is right in front of it, and it’s main job is to DO. It’s not interested in anything that isn’t relevant to the job or task.

Black StallionDefault, on the hand, is when you unhitch the horse (your brain), take the blinders off, and let it loose in a field with nothing in particular to do. The horse, while roaming the field, finds many interesting things, often makes new connections between existing information (“aha” moments), and is able understand others and itself.

Here’s a few specifics about each network (by the way, it’s important to note that while some of the aspects below may sound similar to Right and Left Hemisphere operations, each network actually includes both):

Default Mode Network Task Positive Network
Dreaming

Envisioning the future

Long-term memory

Gauging other’s perspectives

Theory of mind (understanding others)

Introspection

Self-referential thought

DMN is spread widely throughout brain

Focus on task

Actively paying attention (external)

Goal-orientation

Reacting to and working with sensory information

Short-term (working) memory

Planning

Abstract reasoning

TPN is more concentrated in pre-frontal cortex

In today’s busy world, most of us don’t allow ourselves enough Default Mode time, and it’s important. I really saw this when I was driving across country after taking my only kid to his freshman year at college. I was using my drive as a time to listen to an audio book, which meant my brain was actively paying attention to external stimuli. And yet, I had just dropped my only son off to his new adventure, and was starting a new one of my own. I realized that I needed to process how I felt. So I turned off the book and just drove, letting my horse of a brain wander in the field. After about half an hour, all sorts of metaphors came to me — I saw taking my son to college was like the end of a really really good book. One you don’t want to end. I cried a bit over that. Then I saw that now there were two books going forward. His and mine. And we were big characters in each other’s story in these new books, but not in the way we were in the first book.

Giving myself Default Mode time really helped me integrate this big change, and by the time I got home, I felt much more ready to embark on my new life without a child at home. The “aha” moments that the Default Network gives us are precious, important, and don’t happen when we are focused on task.

I find with my clients that this tends to resonate — we probably all need a bit more intentional daydreaming in our lives. Knowing about these two networks may help convince people to let their horses loose now and then to find the flowers and other treasures in the field.

A Neuroplasticity Holiday–making new pathways in the snow

footsteps in deep snow“Neuroplasticity is a six-syllable word for hope.”

~Dr. Linda Page, Co-Author, Coaching with the Brain in Mind

Ah yes, neuroplasticity — the brain’s capacity to grow and change throughout our lives. It’s one of the most helpful and positive findings in neuroscience research in the past fifty years. We can, with focus and attention, change our very wiring. We’re not stuck with what we learned as children, took on as adaptive strategies, or even inherited.

My belief is that as coaches, creating and reinforcing new neural pathways may very well be what we do best with our clients, and why we are able to help people on their journeys of lasting change, creating empowerment, not dependency.

But today I just want to reflect human to human, on the particular challenges of the holiday season and how the concept neuroplasticity may be able to help. Like many of you, I am planning to spend a great deal of time with my family over the holidays. I love them to bits but have become more and more aware (sometimes painfully) of the habitual patterns I tend to fall into when we’re all together. Deeply ingrained pathways that go back years–fear (as the youngest) of being left out, concern that if I really share what I am doing in the world no one will care, certainty that this person will be dull to talk to or that another one doesn’t like me as much as I think she should.

And here’s the thing: none of it is planned or intentional in the slightest. It’s just habit, like a smooth, well plowed path in the snow that’s easy to walk down without effort or thought. Many (dare I say most?) of our patterns with family were laid down early in our lives, which means, from a brain wiring standpoint, that we get a double whammy in terms of potency. One, we’ve had many years to practice, and the more you use a neural pathway the stronger it becomes. Two, pathways that were created in childhood (and up through adolescence) may become myelinated–that is, coated with an electrically insulating fatty material that forms a layer around the axon of the neurons in that pathway, making it quicker and stronger.

So there we are, back with the people we grew up with, finding ourselves playing out the same habits, thought patterns and behaviors we had hoped we’d transcended. What to do? It’s time to intentionally create some new neural pathways.

It may help to think of creating these new neural pathways like making trails in deep snow. The first time you walk, it’s hard, slow and tiring. Even the next time and the next can be difficult. But at some point, it gets easier. The snow gets packed down. You make progress. The trick is to keep at it, trying your best to ignore the superhighway of habitual patterns that is beckoning. Yes, it’s the easier road, but it’s not the road to fulfillment.

Without awareness and intention, our brains (which like to conserve energy) take us down the easiest path. But with a commitment to change, we can re-wire even the deep neural structures from our childhoods. This holiday season, let’s all take one habit that is no longer serving us in our families and walk through the deep snow to more love, authenticity, and connection.